Eddie Redmayne (right) as the young Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”.
Show Hide image

Stephen Hawking would not be Stephen Hawking if he had been born with his disability

The physicist is held up as an example of what you can achieve in life if you have a disability, but he was only diagnosed with motor neurone disease when he was 21 – his career was set in motion while he was still able-bodied.

Ask yourself this question: did you know that Stephen Hawking was only diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21? And if you’ve seen The Theory of Everything, can you honestly say you knew beforehand?

On the surface, pondering this may seem irrelevant. After all, the fact remains he is now disabled. But in honour of a man who has spent his whole life searching for the perfect equation, let’s respect for a moment that the order of things can hold vital importance, and lead to vastly differing conclusions.

This is certainly the case regarding perceptions of Stephen Hawking. The cosmologist was catapulted to worldwide fame following the publication of his book A Brief History of Time, yet it is sometimes easy to forget this sudden surge of recognition stemmed not only from his disability, but the small matter of theorising the nature of the universe.

I should know. Hawking’s career-defining book hit the shelves in 1988, and two years later I was born with cerebral palsy. By the time I had reached my formative years in primary school, society and those around me felt comfortable thrusting forward the image of Hawking, his wheelchair, and his genius as my source of inspiration. An anomaly blessed with extreme intelligence, the benchmark for what disabled people could achieve – transcending the tyranny of low expectation so readily shoved upon people in my position.

While this was no doubt well-meant – the widespread ignorance of the truth has twisted the man into something he is not. To be clear, Hawking gained his academic and scientific credentials whilst still very much able-bodied, even coxing one of Oxford’s rowing crews prior to transferring to Cambridge to complete his PhD thesis. Had he been disabled from birth, it is very doubtful he would have been given the same opportunity to establish himself.

Yet it is equally difficult to deny that Hawking’s work attracted such clamour precisely because his physical state and appearance juxtaposed the excellence of his work. Hawking’s doctor touched on the issue in his diagnosis. As the film’s dialogue puts it: “Your thoughts won't change, it's just no one will know what they are."

Of course, we now know speech synthesis has given Hawking new ways to continue to communicating, allowing the genius to shine through.  Even in today’s age of Google and Wikipedia, there is no other living scientist who is as instantly recognisable.

This battle of appearance over reality gets to the heart of the confusion over who Stephen Hawking is and how he ought to be explained. Long since anointed the founding forefather of “acceptable” disability, it is in fact his bright mind that gave him clout – way before he had motor neurone disease. By failing to recognise that Hawking’s success had nothing to do with disability, we give the disease undue credit for his perfectly able mind and outstanding scientific achievements.

This is even more problematic considering recent figures from the Office for Disability Issues, which found that four in five disabled people, like Hawking, are not born with their impairments. Despite this, they are still less likely to work full time, and similarly, less likely to be in high-level employment: 49 per cent as compared to 56 per cent of able-bodied people.  

And this is where the order of things becomes incredibly important. Hawking very nearly missed out on a First at Oxford, not due to lack of ability, but because of a failure to apply himself properly on questions and examinations he found too easy. The professors waived these indiscretions at his disciplinary undergraduate viva when they realised his potential.

Had Hawking been born with a disability, he would still have had this same potential – the same mind, daring, courage and thought, but he would have faced very different prejudices. It is likely that even the most basic access to advanced education would have been deemed out of the question, blocking the groundwork from which the mind-boggling theories emerged.

If in some parallel universe, I had the chance to go back in time and speak to my younger self and those thrusting Hawking’s wheelchair upon me, I would say this. Aspire to his levels of intelligence but do not judge yourself against them, and most of all, do not think it was his disability that made him great. He set in motion his achievements when he wasn’t disabled. While others may take you and your disability at face value, see yourself and your dreams as perfectly able. Stephen Hawking was still Stephen Hawking, wheelchair or otherwise. So are you.

Alex Taylor is on Twitter @ykts_net

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.